Spirit of Liberality

Collected Essays

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George Newlands
  • Cambridge, England: 
    James Clarke Co.
    , March
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Much has been made of the decline in liberal Christian theology, and especially in the Anglo-American world. The dominant strands of theology are often orthodox—even Radical Orthodox—liberationist, and post-liberal. But in Spirit of Liberality, George Newlands continues his life-long scholarship to develop and envelop an emancipatory strand of liberal theology back into the conversation. The wide variety of topics and figures that are discussed, from Luther, the university, to religion, democracy, John McIntyre, Adolf van Harnack, liberalism—both political and theological—and the future of the church, are both exhaustive and refreshing. The volume is full of wit, candor, humility, and ambition.

In this brief review I’ll touch on some of the overarching themes of the book and what it may, or may not, tell us about the future of classical liberal theology, and what directions this liberal, Scottish theologian might offer the liberal denominations facing decline in America.

As I understand the canopy of arguments in this book, Newlands approaches theology as something of a process of enlargement. Understanding Christianity in both its classical and liberal forms, he broadens the horizon in both radical and realistic ways. This is most evident in his views of the work of spirit.

In chapter 6—“Public Theology in Postfoundation Tradition”—his festschrift to Wentzel van Huyssteen, Newlands writes, “Spirit is no in conflict with but complements embodiment. The consequences of resurrection are the presence within the created order of the Spirit of the risen Christ. Within Christian community the Spirit is always related to the focal areas of Word and Sacrament. How these are related has been the subject of endless sacramental controversy. What matters here is the intrinsic connection, and the central importance to both” (98). Throughout the book we return to themes, whether they are political or foundational, that hover around this idea. For Newlands, the Church—or churches—is to embody love. But this embodiment has to come with an understanding of limits, humility in their approach, and simultaneously facing inward and outward. A healthy church reflects within itself to better grasp its own problems and approach the world humbly. In turn, the word, through the Church in the world has “outbursts of transparent goodness produced by the Christian gospel and shared with a wider humanity. This is what faith has understood as the fruits of the Spirit. Progress here will involve a comprehensive renunciation of traditions of cultural and religious superiority” (99).

This dualism enlarges the conversation, but it’s not without its tensions, and though Newlands offers some moves that acknowledge the tensions, they aren’t dealt with in this book with any sort of rigor. As I see it, the move to enlarge needs to be careful to not swallow or assume that those it wants to engage with want to engage in the same ways. Liberal theology needs to be both nimble and humble in its approach to expand the horizon, understand limitations, and not wave over real difference within Christian and non-Christian communities.

As has been mentioned for the better part of the last quarter century, the mainline Protestant denominations in the United States are losing members. There are many reasons for this, but an often-cited reason is that these churches no longer engage orthodoxy or classical Christianity with any rigor or purpose. Perhaps there is something to this, and mainline Protestant congregations should begin or renew serious engagement with traditional texts.

Newlands offers liberal reasons for such an engagement. The process of engaging with critics only helps liberals. As he puts it in the essay “Humane Spirit – Towards a Liberal Theology of Resistance and Respect,” which considers certain pushbacks against liberal theology—including John Milbank and other radical orthodox critiques—Newlands, while drawing on Schleiermacher, says “It is the of the essence of liberal theology that it should be open to challenge and be subject to reassessment and change. Liberalism values tradition, but it values it as a tradition of disruption as well as continuity. Liberal thought is certainly indebted to Enlightenment – Schleiermacher is the archetypal, liberal Christian – and is therefore committed to a critical assessment of the Enlightenment’s failures” (65). He continues, “Liberal Christian faith is grounded in trust that God is equally near to ever generation, in times of flourishing and suffering” (65). This radical yet realistic overview of the theological situation is important. Throughout these essays Newlands calls into question certain progressive boastings about the unfolding of history in any rational way. Instead what the liberal should focus on is anything that is not firmly Christomorphic, and approaches the world, whether one thinks they live in Babylon or Jerusalem, with a humble confidence in the power of the theology of the spirit. Christians need to be radical yet realistic in their resistance to any anti-Christomorphic actions, and carefully carry your actions with a “theology of respect.” Humanity is often spontaneous and unpredictable. Even the most strident efforts for justice may not work in ways you think they ought to, but that’s no reason to disengage from the world. As he posits it in his freschrift for John Hick, “It will be a theology of risk, which engages with serious issues in solidarity and identification” (65). There is hope in our actions. But our actions have to be grounded in a study Christianity. Without that sturdiness, the force of our witness is diminished.

Newlands has spent a career probing the questions of Christian theology and witness within a liberal framework. With Spirit of Liberality, he is equally focused as on the here-and-now, urging Christians to not long for nostalgia or despair to incremental action. These essays are vast their scope, but accessible to many readers. I urge anyone who engages from within or outside of the liberal theological persuasion to read these essays, take them seriously, and respond critically to their sense of purpose.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kyle Trowbridge is a graduate student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

Date of Review: 
September 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

George Newlands is professor emeritus of divinity in the University of Glasgow and an honorary fellow in the University of Edinburgh. A Fellow of Royal Society of Edinburgh, he is a former Dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. His recent publications include Christ and Human Rights (2006) and Hospitable God (2010).


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